LOS ANGELES (REUTERS) - Former world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali died in a Phoenix-area hospital on Friday.
Family spokesman Bob Gunnell issued this statement: "After a 32-year battle with Parkinson's disease, Muhammad Ali has passed away at the age of 74. The three-time World Heavyweight Champion boxer died this evening.
"Muhammad Ali's funeral will take place in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. The Ali family would like to thank everyone for their thoughts, prayers, and support and asks for privacy at this time."
Ali, one of the best-known figures of the 20th century, had been hospitalised earlier this week for a respiratory ailment.
Speculation had swirled around his health status over the last 24 hours as Gunnell had said that Ali, 74, was in fair condition, but media reports had said he was in rapidly failing health.
Ali has suffered from Parkinson's disease for more than three decades and has kept a low profile in recent years.
The Radar Online website reported on Friday that Ali had been placed on life support, citing "an insider". The Reuters source close to the family could not comment on that report.
News of his latest health setback sparked concern among admirers.
"Prayers & blessings to my idol," boxer Sugar Ray Leonard tweeted. Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton tweeted: "My prayers and thoughts are with Muhammad and family."
Another boxing superstar, Manny Pacquiao, also paid tribute to Ali:" We lost a giant today. Boxing benefited from Muhammad Ali's talents but not nearly as much as mankind benefited from his humanity."
Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said of the boxer in a Facebook post: "Unforgettable. The beauty he brought to a tough sport. His foot shuffle, the way he danced around evading blows, and his lightning speed jabs. His legendary work ethic. And the comical bravado in his poetry."
Ali's last public appearance was in April at the "Celebrity Fight Night" gala in Arizona, a charity that benefits the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center.
At the height of his career, Ali was known for his dancing feet and quick fists and his ability, as he put it, to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.
He held the heavyweight title a record three times, and Sports Illustrated named him the top sportsman of the 20th century.
Nicknamed "The Greatest," Ali retired from boxing in 1981 with a record of 56 wins, 37 by knockout, and five losses. Ali's diagnosis of Parkinson's came about three years after he left the ring.
Ali, born in Louisville, Kentucky, as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr, changed his name in 1964 after his conversion to Islam.
Ali had a show-time personality that he melded with dazzling footwork and great hand speed. His bouts with such fighters as Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman made him an international celebrity like boxing had never seen.
He became a symbol for black liberation during the 1960s as he stood up to the US government by refusing to go into the Army for religious reasons.
Ali made a surprise appearance at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996, stilling the Parkinson's tremors in his hands enough to light the Olympic flame.
He also took part in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012, looking frail in a wheelchair. He has been married four times and has nine children.
Ali's daughter Laila, a former boxer, tweeted a photo of her father kissing her own daughter, Sydney. She thanked supporters for their wishes for Ali, saying: "I feel your love and appreciate it!"